Shopping here can be overwhelming. Think New York City on steroids. The City of Light and Love has as much fashion history as it does architecture and art legacy.
As first-time visitors, with an embarrassingly inadequate grasp of the language, my friend and I took a whirlwind shopping excursion to Paris earlier this month to do a little holiday browsing and buying. The city glitters in December with holiday lights and the sidewalks and stores are jammed with harried shoppers. We jostled among them.
In just four days, we managed to hit some of the city's unique and exquisite marketplaces, thanks to the help of a hired shopping guide and tips from the hotel concierges. And, having solved the issues of shopping navigation, we were able see Mona Lisa and the masterpieces of the Louvre, attend Sunday Mass during Advent in the Cathedrale de Notre Dame and enjoy the spectacular store windows at the famous department stores Printemps and Galeries Lafayette. How clever were the multitude of dancing Karl Lagerfelds. So apt for a fashion-forward adventure.
Our home base was the boutique Hotel Scribe, clearly selected by us journalists for its name. During our stay, we learned the hotel was the headquarters of Nazi journalists streaming propaganda during the occupation of France in World War II. Hotel Scribe, opened in 1895, is located in the city's 9th Arrondissement, known as the Opera District and within easy walking distance to designer salons and department stores. Sturdy shoes and a healthy constitution can get you to the Arc de Triomphe, Eiffel Tower and several museums.
We enjoyed being in the center of holiday activity and walking along the Champs-Élysées through the glimmering Christmas market. But, we also wanted to see the romantic Paris we had come to know from literature and films. We refused to buy anything that wasn't made in France (not easy), so we took the "Made in France" shopping tour designed by ex-pat Rebecca Magniant.
A native of Missouri who met her French husband while studying for her master's degree in art therapy at George Washington University, Magniant has been living in Paris since 2002. Through her company, Chic Shopping in Paris, she offers an insider's view of the city through shopping trips for food, bargains, luxury items, designer clothing and other customized tours.
"I think one of the biggest mistakes Americans make coming here is thinking the Champs-Élysées is the best place to go for shopping," Magniant says. "It's basically big-box brand stores you have anywhere in the world."
Magniant, 38, and her staff of American and Canadian guides lead small groups through the city's flea markets, consignment shops and boutiques of homegrown wares.
French flea markets aren't located on old drive-in theater lots. They are set in rows of semipermanent, wooden boutiques where shoppers might just be lucky enough to find an outfit from Chanel or Dior.
We were interested in French-made housewares, food gifts and quality souvenirs. On the day of our trip, one of Magniant's two young daughters was ill, so we were led by guide Jennifer Balmadier, an energetic Boston native with a French husband and 6-year-old daughter.
We met at the Paris Metro stop in Odeon, to shop in the Saint-Germain district. Winding our way through narrow streets of tiny shops we found treasures including stationery, linens and chocolate. Paris is choc-full of chocolatiers. And macaron shops.
We had planned to stop for coffee but had so much energy we kept hunting for treasures. Bargains? Just a little hard to come by. The day ended at the massive food hall of the grand Le Bon Marché store, which Magniant describes as the "Neiman Marcus of Paris." Mostly, we brought back sweet edibles.
Chic Shopping tours start at 100 euros per person for four hours and can vary depending on the desired route. Along with trips like ours, Magniant says she arranges a lot of "Sweet 16" mother-daughter tours. Recently, she guided a bride through a search for a wedding gown.
"The biggest tour I ever had was when one woman spent 20,000 euros (about $26,000) in one day, mostly on gifts for her teenage daughter," she says.
Besides the Saint-Germain neighborhood, Magniant said the "Unique Boutique" tour in the Marais district is one of her favorites.
Along with navigating the shops, our guide provided useful tips on negotiating the French culture. For example, when we can't find throat lozenges (all that dry heat!) at the local drug store, Balmadier explains that we have to ask the pharmacist for any medications, including traditional over-the-counter products. "When I go home to Boston, I like to shop at CVS," she says honestly.
She also gave us lessons on French etiquette.
"You always address the shopkeeper when you go into a store," she says, offering a "Bonjour Madame" in a sweet, singsong tone to each merchant. It's also customary to say "au revoir" when you leave, even if just browsing. And don't apply lipstick in public. Tacky.
While they demand civility, the shopkeepers also can be very forward when it comes to purchases.
"They are always honest," Magniant says. "Sometimes it's a little bit brutal, but if you are trying on clothes, they will tell you if something doesn't look good on you."
Luckily, no one complained about the chocolate on our faces.
Times correspondent Kathy Saunders is a regular contributor to the Times' Taste and Personal Best sections, organizing the popular Taster's Choice columns.